Riverdale Farm

Monday Feb. 16, 2015

Minus 19 feeling like minus 27 but it is Family Day in Ontario thus requiring that I do something with my day off other than sit around and worry about how cold it is.  I parked on Carlton Street near West Riverdale Park.

John Scadding had come to Upper Canada with Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe and after working as a government clerk he was granted land near York.  In 1856 the city purchased 119 acres from the Scadding estate on which to build a jail farm (Don Jail) and a park.  On Aug. 11, 1880 Riverdale Park officially opened.  In 1888 some deer were donated and by 1894 there were enough exotic animals to open Riverdale Zoo.

Around the same time that the animals were being collected, the city was hatching a plan to straighten the Don river where it flowed through the lower part of the city.  The Lower Don snaked back and forth and flowed through a series of marshes and wetlands similar to the Humber Marshes.  By placing the Don into a straight deep channel they hoped to make shipping accessible to the local industry.  Flooding and mosquitoes were also supposed to be better controlled by eliminating the marsh land  The project started where the river flowed through this piece of property.  The river was moved to the east and the section on the site of Riverdale Zoo was cut off from the rest of the river.  The ponds that exist on the lower zoo property are, in fact, left over pieces of the river.  In the May 1888 map below the river is shown on the Riverdale Park and Jail farm near the right side of the map.

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Sitting in the middle of this section of the old river is an island which can only be reached by means of a stone arch bridge.  There are only three buildings remaining from the days of the Riverdale Zoo and one of them stands on the island.  Known as the Island House it still has the bars in the windows from its days as The Monkey House.  The picture below is from Dec. 14, 1921 when there were no trees on the little island.

below we see a stone bridge leading to what is variously known as the Island House or the Monkey House in the middle of a pond. All still exist.   1921

The Monkey House today serves as a storage shed for garden equipment.


The residence was built in 1902 by captives of the Don Jail.  It served as a zoo keeper’s residence, staff building, animal hospital and temporary morgue for the Necropolis across the street.  The bricks on this home are made of regular pressed brick as well as a material that looks like coal slag.  The bricks have not been placed in even rows and some stick out from the side of the building giving it a most unusual look.


The Donnybrook ruins stand near the cow paddock.  This building was originally a two story building with a tower but only the lower floor remains.  When the floor was poured, a hippopotamus sat in the wet concrete and left his rump print for posterity.  Kids have been sticking their feet in wet cement ever since.


Riverdale Zoo, like other Victorian zoos, took little care to display the animals in their natural settings.  The city began to look for a new location for a modern zoo and a site in Scarborough was selected.  The new zoo opened in 1974 and the Riverdale zoo closed on June 30, 1974.

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Over the next 4 years most of the zoo buildings and cages were torn down except for the three described above.  It was decided to turn the zoo into a working farm as an educational site for local school children.  Riverdale Farm opened in 1978 as a free public park.  Several new buildings were constructed to illustrate life in a 19th century farm.  The Simpson House is a replica of an 1852 home that stood on the Francey farm in Markham.


Inside the pig and poultry barn there are several different types of chickens, ducks and turkeys.


The Francey Barn was built in 1858 in Markham and was donated to Riverdale farm.  It is a rare surviving sample of a Pennsylvania bank barn.  Designed and built into a hill side or river bank these barns have ground floor access to both the upper and lower floors.  The picture below shows the huge hand hewn timbers that the barn was constructed from.  The trees on an individual’s land grant would be used to build their homes and barns.  This barn was taken apart, moved here and re-assembled in 1975.  Having grown up in small town Ontario I was taken back to my youth by the familiar smell inside the barn.


When the dutch came to Ontario from Pennsylvania they brought some of their traditions with them.  The Mennonite’s call their places of worship a meeting house and one of the largest church groups in Ontario is called The Meeting House.  In keeping with the theme of the farm, the drop in centre is called the Meeting House.


In the Francey barn are many antique items including old sleighs and carriages.  One that I found particularly interesting is this old wooden barrel washing machine.  Gilson was a manufacturer of washing machines, dryers, gas engines and furnaces that operated in Guelph from 1907 until 1977.  By 1920 enamel barrels had replaced the wooden ones to make cleaning easier and the machine much quieter.  Electric washing machines were first made in 1907 and the machine in the picture below was likely made within the first decade of production.


Across the street from the farm sits the Necropolis.  This burying ground was opened in 1850 when the “potter’s field” cemetery at the north west corner of Yonge and Bloor was found to be on prime development land and was closed and moved.  A crematorium was added in 1933. Some of the early founders of the city are interred here including the old rebel himself, William Lyon Mackenzie.


For now the Polar Bears have moved to the new Toronto Zoo where they have a much more natural habitat than the concrete pond they used to call home and the animals on the farm now enjoy a pastoral setting.

Polar bear cubs

Thanks to my brother Allan who suggested I visit this site.  It was a lot of fun and may need some more exploration in the summer.

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10 thoughts on “Riverdale Farm

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